‘First, they laugh at you’
So nice of President Obama to have talked to us about Mahatma Gandhi. Unfortunately he’s not in a position to do as Gandhi. Someone who is, ironically, is the future king of England. Prince Charles has a new book out, called Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World, and in it he lays out his version of a Gandhian approach to saving our planet and civilisation.
Unlike Obama, Prince Charles is not cool. He is decidedly staid, not especially charismatic, and often denounced as faddish in his pursuit of “green” and “traditional” things. But the prince, unlike the president, doesn’t have to be cool.
Charles quotes Gandhi several times. There is the famous quote on Western civilisation: “It would be a very good idea.” There is also: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” There is this judicious statement: “The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems.” And this wise one: “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”
These few lines contain the prince’s whole approach to the questions of globalisation, climate change, sustainability and happiness. The rest of the book is a detailed elaboration.
I like the book. It makes sense. It is well-written and clear, and despite obviously having been heavily ghostwritten (by Tony Juniper and Ian Skelly) it conveys a personal sense of the prince himself. It is positive, forward-looking and full of bright pictures and examples from past and present.
It is also wide-ranging. Charles says, essentially, that in the past humans had an instinctive understanding of harmony — which is the sense that everything in the universe obeys rules of proportion and balance. The Fibonacci sequence of numbers, for example, appears in apparently unconnected ways throughout nature: in the arrangement of flower petals, planetary orbits, proportions of the human body, the way fish move and rivers flow. A similar use of ratio occurs in the great cathedrals, Islamic tile art, classical music, the shape of the credit card. Notably, says Charles, science is gravitating to a rediscovery of underlying patterns, in DNA, the atom, astrophysics and so on.
Where we depart from the ancient harmonies, says Charles, we feel ill at ease and dissatisfied. He’s famous for his dislike of modern architecture, and he points out (with a curl of the lip) that few people like Modernist or Brutalist architecture — it doesn’t feel right, and he says we ought to pay attention to our instincts.
Likewise with food, farming (organic, sustainable) and economic activity. Cleverly he throws in a 1997 study that estimated the value of services provided by the environment, from pollination by bees to rain and soil: a staggering $33 trillion, when global GDP was only $18 trillion.
But the greatest value of the book is that it invites us to think again in the long term.
In the long term we cannot have more people, more wealth and more environment. Our attention should be drawn to the agricultural crisis brewing — in Punjab, for example, where chemicals no longer raise crop yields and farmers are getting cancer.
Are we oversimplifying our economic calculations? Even a neighbourhood market is an almost incomprehensibly complex ecosystem. How can we pretend to understand national and global economic activity?
In the quest for authenticity, are soulless modern offices, homes and jobs being offset by a greater appetite for organised religion, and bigger and more elaborate temples?
If things go badly, as the climate shifts and we have to pay closer attention to natural forces, will this mark a return to paganism? “O gods of rain and wind…”
It’s worrying as well as stimulating, thinking speculatively in the long term. Charles clearly does that. He quotes, prominently, this magnificent statement of Gandhi’s: “First they laugh at you, then they ignore you, then they fight you, then you win.”